Fear of Missing Out: Are You a Slave to FOMO?

The fear of missing out can be a social motivator; it can also drive you crazy.

June 22, 2012, 3:02 PM

June 24, 2012— -- Today, I promise myself, will be FOMO-free. No worrying about what others are doing. No stressing about what else I could be doing. No second-guessing the invites I've declined. Me. Today. FOMO-free.

Just one last look at Facebook.

Big mistake. My best writer friend had invited me to breakfast (I said no because I had to work), and now I see she's sharing pancakes with a woman whose friendship I've been pursuing (silently, virtually, of course) for months, partly because I admire how she matches her earrings to her eyeliner and partly because I love her Jessica Simpson imitation (3,492 YouTube hits, 22 of them mine), but mostly because she could help me land a great new gig.

But there they are, and here I am, feeling the first familiar sparks of FOMO. Since I can't live-Photoshop myself into their breakfast, I settle for the healing balm of writing an envy-inspiring tweet: "Costa Rica cabin for holidays! Surf's up!" (Never mind that I can barely swim.) Then I send a Facebook friend request to a different potential work connection I've been too shy to approach. As I await his response, salvation in the form of a yoga workshop invite for this afternoon appears in my feed. This might be what finally helps me focus. How could I miss it?

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The Urge to Be Everywhere at Once

The feeling of FOMO has been around since the first caveman wondered if perhaps he should be out hunting dinner instead of siring an heir. At its root, the phenomenon is a healthy response to variety and choice. But with today's nearly infinite options, it has morphed into something far more complex. Now, FOMO (which nearly 70 percent of adults experience, according to a survey done by marketing communications firm JWT) can feel like an uncontrollable yearning to be two or more places at once, fueled by the fear that missing out on something could put a dent in your happiness, status, or career.

"FOMO happens when we invalidate the experience we're having because we're obsessed with the ones we're not having," says psychologist Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness.

Social media is kerosene on FOMO's fire. Prior to sites like Facebook, a yearly holiday card from an old friend might have made you wonder (or feel angsty about) why you passed up ski-bumming in Telluride or leaving cube life to teach English in Vietnam. But now that you can see your connections' lives in real time, you are theoretically always missing something--a party, a trip, a new career opportunity.


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Are You a Slave to FOMO?

Reined-in cases of FOMO don't go much beyond good fodder for half-serious griping (see The Office's Mindy Kaling's hilarious tome, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?). But a true predilection can result in physical strain if, say, you hit yet another late-night soiree in spite of being bone tired (just so you're not the one who "wasn't there that time"). It can also trigger emotional turmoil in the form of uncertainty, regret, or envy, says psychologist Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT.

Such emotions can lead to resentment--toward yourself and others--as well as feelings of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and unworthiness. And these, in turn, can prompt you toward a type of defensive sugarcoating that has become all too recognizable online. Take my Costa Rica post, which was basically my way of showing my social circle (and, of course, myself) that I don't need to be at some breakfast meeting to be fabulous. And perhaps it was no coincidence that minutes after that tweet went live, a housebound new-mom friend posted, "There's nothing better than raising my adorable little Caleb." If I can't be there having fun, the thinking goes, I'll show I'm having more fun right here.

"FOMO prompts people to use social media to present enviable versions of themselves," says Turkle, and this behavior can seriously mess with your head: "One of the weirdest things about FOMO is that people find it hard to live up to not only the images projected by others but also the image they've presented of themselves."

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When Envy Works

I never make it to the yoga workshop. Instead, I end up lunching with the guy I friended, who replied that he'd love to work together. It's true: If I hadn't had my FOMOment and freaked out that my pal's career was overtaking mine, I wouldn't have made this contact. Herein lies the upside of FOMO, explains Ann Mack, director of trend spotting for JWT. "It can be very motivating," she says. "It can keep us connected to other people and ideas."

But how can you reap the benefits without also ending up in an irrational self-validating cycle? First, remind yourself you're seeing only the best parts of people's lives online, says Kozak. After all, you wouldn't think you were missing much if you knew I was sharing my Central American bungalow with five backpacking strangers.

Then try to turn your darker instincts around: Instead of chastising yourself for being boring or left behind, use your FOMO as a catalyst to set realistic goals (an adventurous trip, an action-packed girls' night). Remember that people are happiest when they're embracing their most authentic selves, so as hokey as it seems, try to stay true to who you really are and avoid knee-jerk self-reassuring reactions, says Kozak. "You can use what other people are doing as inspiration," he advises. "Just leave out the 'I'm not doing that now, so I must be defective' part." (Also keep this in mind: If someone's post leaves you feeling lacking, give yourself 10 minutes to process your mood before responding. You'll often think better of it.)

If--despite putting things into perspective--you just can't shake FOMO's negative effects, reframe the way you think about missing something. Instead of thinking, I'm not going to the party and I'm going to miss all the fun, try, I'm not going to the party because I'm hanging out with my brother. Having a "yes" alternative (and acknowledging you made a conscious choice) prevents you from feeling like, Ugh, I'm totally missing out. Your goal is to let FOMO inspire you to live better, not let it ruin your fun.


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Degrees of FOMO

Not all sufferers are created equal. Find out if you're an optimizer or a satisficer.

First coined by economic social scientist Herbert A. Simon, the terms optimizer and satisficer have been adopted by sociologists to describe how everyday people tackle everyday choices.


If you're constantly maneuvering to find the best possible angle or outcome behind any choice (you find the cutest little black dress but still rush from store to store looking for one that's even cuter), you're an optimizer. "Optimizers are not satisfied with 'good enough,'" explains psychologist Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., which can lead these people to professional success but can also make them extremely vulnerable to FOMO. No matter what optimizers are doing, they may think they're missing something better (and they often never find a fulfilling outcome).


If, on the other hand, you take the first attractive option (that LBD is just great, thanks) and move on, you're a satisficer. Such people spend less time worrying and have way less FOMO, says Kozak. Yes, they sometimes settle for things that aren't quite the best, but they feel confident in their choices. Their easier decision-making might lead to a more joyful life.


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